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2018 Toyota Highlander vs. 2018 Ford Explorer: Which Is Better?

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author photo by Eric Brandt September 2018
  • The 2018 Toyota Highlander and 2018 Ford Explorer are two popular midsize SUVs with three rows of seats.

  • The Highlander is available as a hybrid, but the Explorer is not.

  • Although they're in the same class, these big crossovers take different approaches to family transportation.

If you're in the market for a family hauler that can seat more than five people, but you don't want a minivan, then there's a good chance the Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander have shown up on your shopping list.

Whether you're looking for affordable family transportation, a luxury SUV, a fuel-sipping hybrid or an exciting performance crossover, you're bound to find something you like between the Explorer and the Highlander. Let's take a look at their similarities, their differences and which one is better for you.

Exterior

Exterior styling is one of the biggest things that sets these two SUVs apart. The Ford Explorer has always been a rather traditional-looking, boxy SUV, and that's still true today. It has a look that's becoming more and more associated with police cars since it's now America's favorite police cruiser, so it does have a bit of an authoritative look to it. The Toyota Highlander has a sleeker, curvier exterior. Its angular front end makes it almost look like a Lexus, giving it a bit of a premium look, especially on the higher trims.

The Explorer is a little bigger than the Highlander. The Ford is five inches longer, three inches wider, and two inches taller than the Toyota, which is minor, but it does mean it will take up a little more space in your garage and in parking spaces.

Interior

The Explorer and the Highlander are both pretty roomy on the inside, but interior materials are a bit of a mixed bag for both. In both SUVs, the interior feels cheap and plastic on the lower trims, but as you work your way up, the materials get nicer, making the interior a nicer place to be.

The Highlander looks a little nicer on the inside than the Explorer. The Explorer's interior suffers from sub-par fit and finish and an interior look that is starting to look dated. The Highlander's interior is more modern with some nicely designed lines tying it together.

Passenger space is similar in the first two rows, but the third row of seats is a lot more usable in the Explorer than it is in the Highlander. The Highlander has three seats in the third row and the Explorer only has two, but the way back of the Explorer is much more comfortable with five more inches of legroom and two more inches of headroom than the Highlander. The Explorer also has more cargo room in the back when all of the seats are folded up, but the total cargo volume is similar in both SUVs when all of the seats are folded down.

If you're planning on using the third seat with any regularity, the Explorer is the clear winner in terms of comfort for every passenger and cargo space. However, if you're not going to have that many passengers that often, you might appreciate the nicer-looking interior of the Highlander.

Mechanicals

The 2018 Toyota Highlander and the 2018 Ford Explorer both have three engines available. The base engine in the Highlander is a naturally aspirated 4-cylinder, which is unusual for an SUV this size. It's a 2.7-liter engine that makes 185 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque with lack-luster fuel economy for a 4-cylinder at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 24 mpg on the highway. If you upgrade to the available 3.5-liter V6, you get much stronger performance with 295 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque while getting better fuel economy at 21 mpg city/27 mpg hwy. This V6 is an easy recommendation over the base inline-four. A hybrid version of that V6 is available, which gets a decent bump in fuel economy at 30 mpg city/28 mpg highway. If you're planning on using your SUV for a lot of city driving, consider the hybrid.

The base engine in the Explorer is a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 290 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque. That's a little behind the V6 in the Highlander and it's not quite as good on gas at 17 mpg city/24 mpg hwy. The most efficient engine available in the Explorer is a turbocharged 2.3-liter EcoBoost inline-four that makes 280 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. It returns good fuel economy, but still not as good as the V6 Highlander at 19 mpg city/27 mpg hwy. For a really strong performer, you can get a twin turbo 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 under the hood of the Explorer. This engine makes 365 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque, which is by far the most power and torque you can get in either the Ford or the Toyota. However, fuel economy isn't great at 16 mpg city/22 mpg hwy.

Both SUVs are available with all-wheel drive, which is nice to have for snowy roads or for some mild off-roading. They also both have a maximum towing capacity of 5,000 lbs, which is enough to haul a boat, a couple dirt bikes, or a small camper.

Features and Technology

Safety, connectivity and luxury are all available in spades in the Explorer and the Highlander. Toyota makes safety a priority by putting its Toyota Safety Sense P (TSS-P) suite of safety technology in every 2018 Highlander. TSS-P includes lane-departure alert, dynamic radar cruise control, a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection and automatic high beams.

Ford offers a similar safety tech suite called the Safe & Smart package, which comes with rain-sensing wipers, automatic high beams, blind spot monitoring, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control and forward-collision warning with brake support. Unfortunately, it isn't standard on any Explorer and is optional at every trim except the base model.

As you get into the higher trims of these SUVs like the Explorer Platinum and Highlander Limited, they can get pretty luxurious with features like leather seats, a panoramic sunroof, navigation, premium audio and much more. Luckily, both crossovers have several trims to choose from, so you can easily find the one that suits your desires and your budget.

Pricing

The Highlander is more affordable than the Explorer across the model ranges. The Highlander has a starting MSRP of $31,230 and the Explorer starts at $32,140. However, it's worth noting that the Explorer's base engine is a V6 and the Highlander's is a rather weak I4. When you upgrade to a V6 in the Highlander, its pricing is more in line with the Explorer.

Hybrid variants are still more expensive than the conventional Highlanders, but the price gap isn't as big as it used to be. For example, upgrading from a Highlander XLE to a Highlander Hybrid XLE costs a little less than $3,000. The big fuel economy benefit of the hybrid is in city driving, so the extra cost could eventually pay for itself if you do a lot of driving in the city.

The Explorer can get awfully expensive with the Platinum trim starting at $53,940. However, you get a lot with the Explorer Platinum like the twin-turbo EcoBoost V6, standard all-wheel drive, Sony premium audio, a twin-panel moonroof, leather seats with quilted inserts and much more. A similarly equipped AWD Highlander Limited with the Platinum Package costs $46,860, but doesn't have as strong of an engine as the Explorer Platinum.

As we mentioned earlier, both SUVs can accommodate a wide range of budgets from affordable to luxurious and anything in between.

Conclusion

Between these two midsize crossovers, just about anyone can find something to like. If you want a strong-performing SUV without sacrificing practicality, an Explorer Sport would be a great option. If you want a frugal fuel-sipper that isn't a cramped economy car, one of the hybrid Highlanders might be just what you're looking for. Or if you just need sensible family transportation on a modest budget, a low- or mid-range model for either of these would be family friendly and a great value.

Our recommendation for a well-balanced SUV for value, safety and efficiency is a V6-equipped Highlander. The only downside is the cramped third row of seats, which still works in a pinch, but we can't recommend it for regular use. Other than that, it's a modern, well-equipped crossover that's packed with safety features and offers an excellent drivetrain.

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2018 Toyota Highlander vs. 2018 Ford Explorer: Which Is Better? - Autotrader